Keeping Yiddish Alive
Deborah Wexler, a community organizer and volunteer from Palo Alto, California, and her husband, Peter Wexler, a technology pioneer, are longtime supporters of the Yiddish Book Center. Over the years, as their relationship with the Center has deepened, so has their commitment to helping advance its mission: Deborah has sat on the board of directors, and through their sustained support, she and Peter have been instrumental in the development of the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. This year, the Wexlers funded an endowment for the project, which will allow us to continue to collect, preserve, and disseminate diverse stories of Yiddish culture and modern Jewish identity. Deborah Wexler talked to the Yiddish Book Center’s executive director, Susan Bronson, about her family’s connections to Yiddish, what the Center has meant to her personally over the years, and the ways she and her husband share their enthusiasm for its work.
Susan Bronson: What’s your connection to Yiddish. Why has it been important to you to maintain that connection?
Deborah Wexler: I grew up in a house where my maternal grandparents spoke Yiddish. They spoke Yiddish to each other and to us and to my mother, and they spoke a little bit of English. When they didn’t want us to understand what they were talking about, they would switch to Russian.
Maintaining my connection to Yiddish is a way for me to honor a lost generation and a lost culture. Being a historian, I want to hold on to what I can of the past in a way that makes it more than just an artifact. I want to keep Yiddish alive—to be able to say, “No, you didn’t decimate us. We’re still here. We’re still speaking our mother tongue.”
Part of it is also, in a way, an apology to my grandmother. I remember once as a child—I was maybe eight—she was speaking to me in Yiddish, and I cried to my mom to tell her to stop. So this is an apology to her.
You know, for somebody my age, I do an awful lot of traditional Jewish cooking. Again, it’s a way of honoring where I come from. My grandmother showed love through cooking and food. When she picked me up from school, she would always have some dessert for me, some sweet thing. I do the same thing now. It’s honoring my grandparents’ memory by doing some of the things that they did. So I make chicken soup. I make chopped liver. I make gefilte fish.
How did you originally come to the Yiddish Book Center?
In the early and mid-‘80s, I lived in Boston and became involved with the Jewish Federation, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and then I found out about the Center. I became a member and I started getting Pakn Treger, and I loved it. I loved it.
It was a touchstone for me. I was alone in Boston. I didn’t have family there, so it was a way for me to feel close to that part of the family. Boston was not very Jewish, and it took me a while to find the Jewish community there. Pakn Treger gave me a connection to my Judaism.
From being a Pakn Treger reader and then becoming a member, you went on to support the Center’s work in profound ways—including your and Peter’s invaluable role in the development of the oral history project, which has become an integral part of the Center’s mission.
Over the years, as both our ability to give and the Center itself grew, I thought, “Maybe it’s time for me to do something a little more meaningful.” In the late '90s, when the Center’s new building was being built, I said, “I want to do something.” I got in touch with a development person, and we talked a little bit. The first thing we did was fund a bookshelf in my grandparents’ name.
When we began hearing about the exciting things Aaron and Christa were doing with the oral history and where they envisioned that project going, we started to see the possibilities of what could be done there. It’s an opportunity to hear stories before they’re lost forever. Once the people who have these stories pass away, the stories are gone unless they’re put down in some way.
That resonated with me as a historian. As a graduate student, I did an oral history project about the African American population in Palo Alto. So I already had some familiarity with oral history, and how exciting it was to hear these voices and uncover things you can’t read in a book.
Are there any interviews from the collection that have had any particular resonance with you?
One was, of course, Leonard Nimoy’s, partly because I lived in Boston. He talked about the City’s West End. When I moved there, the West End had already been demolished, and I felt really heartsick that a whole Jewish community had disappeared. When I saw pictures of the North End, with Yiddish signs, I thought, “Oh, my God, this is wonderful.” To hear Nimoy talk about a town where I lived and that I had feelings for brought home to me what Boston had been like at one time. He was a great interview.
Another interview I was very touched by was with two cowboy cousins, Leonard Strear and Albert Dinner of Colorado. What struck me, besides the fact that they were funny, was the way their interview opened up for me a whole Jewish life that most people don’t consider. There was a Jewish life in the West, in the plains states. Who would’ve thought? And in Yiddish!
For information on how you can support the Yiddish Book Center, please email or call Zvi Jankelowitz, director of institutional advancement, at 413-256-4900, ext. 117.
From Kvel, the newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Fall 2014)
The following is an excerpt from Deborah Wexler’s interview for the Wexler Oral History Project.
View the full-length interview.